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Celebration Not So Celebratory For Tennessee Walking Horses

It's that time of the year again when Shelbyville, Tenn., hosts its annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. Let's hope 2008 marks the year when the horses are allowed to celebrate along with the humans by being treated and trained in a humane manner. But that's a slim bet.

Just recently the American Association of Equine Practitioners issued recommendations for eliminating the practice known as "soring." Soring is used all too often on high-level Tennessee walking horses. Soring's purpose (the application of acid and other painful substances to burn the horses' skin) is to get the horses to lift their front legs painfully high and adopt a painful and unnatural posture. Some, not all, Tennessee walking horse owners find it appealing to watch the horses parade around an arena in this fashion.

First a bit about the celebration: It is the mother of all Tennessee walking horse shows, where some 4,000 entries compete in what the organization's website describes as "the premier event for the Tennessee walking horse, during which the breed's world grand champion and some 20 world champions are named. It is a festival event, encompassing exciting classes in competition where more than $650,000 in prizes and awards are given."

But here's how the New York Times described the "celebration" that took place in 2006:

[A] long-simmering dispute between federal regulators and the horses' trainers and owners climaxed late Saturday with the cancellation of the celebration's final showing to crown the world grand champion, for the first time in the event's 68-year history.

The decision by the organizers came after inspectors who check for signs of abuse disqualified most of the horses, leaving just three eligible for the championship, the organizers said. The organizers said the cancellation was due to safety concerns after a crowd of 150 people demanded that all of the horses be allowed to show in the final event.

After the catastrophic shutdown of the 2006 event, organizers adopted a series of animal protection regulations to which entrants must adhere. This year's celebration could mark a turning point where those regulations are actually enforced. In 2007, according to the Humane Society's Keith Dane, they were not.

In an E-mailed release, Dane wrote: "Even though soring is prohibited by the federal Horse Protection Act of 1970, some within the industry still abuse horses. Its continued practice is documented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's issuance of 103 competitor violations during the 2007 Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, the industry's championship event."

The celebration lists on its website a veritable tome of regulations it promises to enforce. They are:

--Continue an equine drug-screening program that will now include eye examination

--Use hoof testers on flat-shod entries

--Remove, inspect, and weigh shoes on random flat-shod entries after championship classes

--Prohibit use of syringes, except by licensed veterinarians

--Prohibit veterinarians from giving third-party opinions in the inspection area

--Drop girths for inspection

--Select judges with no HPA violations in 2008

--Sanction with an HIO that has signed the 2007-09 Operating Plan

--Judges to submit to polygraph test after the show

--DQP's to submit to polygraph test after the show

--Show management to submit to polygraph test after the show

--Maintain a secure inspection area

--Allow only eligible horses in the inspection area

--DQP's and VMO's may perform random inspections in the barn area

--Enforce the Tennessee Anti-Soring ordinance

More in my next post on why those regulations need to be in place and whether the celebration is enforing them as promised.

By Bonnie Erbe